By Olivia Mellan, Karina Piskaldo, published on January 1, 1999 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Money is such an emotionally loaded topic that few couples discuss it directly. Yet it is, more than sex, what drives partners apart. Psychotherapist Olivia Mellan shows how to put money in its place.
For most people, money is never just money, a tool to accomplish some of life's goals. It is love, power, happiness, security, control, dependency, independence, freedom and more. Money is so loaded a symbol that to unload it--and I believe it must be unloaded to live in a fully rational and balanced relationship to money--reaches deep into the human psyche. Usually, when the button of money is pressed, deeper issues emerge that have long been neglected. As a result, money matters are a perfect vehicle for awareness and growth.
Most people relate to money much as they relate to a person--in an ongoing and complex way that taps deep-seated emotions. When two individuals form an enduring relationship with each other, money is always a partner, too. In these liberated times, couples discuss many things before marriage, but the meaning of money is not one of them. Money is still a taboo topic. Often, the silence is a shield for the shame, guilt and anxiety people feel about their own ways with money. I, for one, would not want to tell a date that I'm an overspender.
Many individuals have a troubled relationship with money. Then, when they get into a couple relationship, money matters get explosive. Other people may have no problem with money individually; the trouble starts after they're in the relationship.
In two decades as a psychotherapist specializing in resolving money conflicts, I have observed that couples usually polarize around money. Partners tend to assume defense styles, or personalities, in relation to money that are direct opposites to each other. I call it Mellan's Law: If opposites don't attract right off the bat, then they will create each other eventually.
Commonly, a hoarder marries a spender. The United States is in fact a nation of overspenders. We live in a market economy and we are led to believe that we are good citizens to the degree that we go out and spend. Because of our community breakdown and spiritual alienation, many people feel a core emptiness that they try to fill up with things. If we're not overspending, we're typically worrying about money or compulsively hoarding it.
We grow up in families where nobody talks about money. Most people will immediately protest: "Not true. My family talked about money all the time." When I ask, "How did you talk?" they reply, "My father worried about not having enough, and he yelled at my mother for spending too much."
The fact remains that people do not grow up with educational or philosophic conversations about what money is and isn't, what it can and can't do. We don't examine the societal messages telling us that gratification lies in spending or that keeping up with the Joneses is important. Information-based money discussions are so taboo that we usually reach adulthood without a realistic sense of our family's finances.
I once met a man who had no idea that he grew up in a wealthy family. He said, "We had a family restaurant and my mother was always worrying about how we were at the edge of doom. As a child I developed a stammer from all that money anxiety. As an adolescent, I worked day and night to keep the restaurant afloat. Years later, my mother was talking about the good old days when we were making so much money in the restaurant business. I started screaming at her about all the money anxiety I carried. I was outraged that it wasn't even based on a real threat. When I stopped screaming, I noticed that my stammer was gone."
And it never returned. That's a therapist's dream story: one catharsis, no symptom. But it does show how money carries a huge emotional load.
As a result of the money taboo, I grew up as most kids do: imitating my parents' way of handling money without being aware of it. My father, affected by the Depression, worried out loud about money. My mother was a shopaholic, expressing love by buying me and herself clothes. She'd hide the purchases behind a living room chair until my father was in a good mood. As an adult, whenever I felt either depressed or particularly happy, I too would go out and shop. And even if I bought everything at a thrift store, I'd hide all the items behind a chair until my husband was in a good mood. Actually, I alternated between shopping and worrying about money.
Some people do the opposite. They typically say, "My father was a hoarder and a worrier. I hated the way he made me account for every penny of my allowance. I made a vow to myself that I'd never be like that." Such people, however, are anything but free of the parental attitude; their behavior is still defined by it.
In addition to irrational attitudes and beliefs about money that we internalize from our families of origin, we carry our own emotionally-charged memories of money from childhood. I remember being in a barbershop with my father when I was six, and some kid asked his father for a quarter. The father said no. The kid started to sob uncontrollably. I remember being so gripped by the child's sense of deprivation, I made a vow right then that I was never going to feel deprived like that. If you tell yourself at six that you're never going to feel deprived, you have the makings of a chronic overspender.
Couples polarized over money engage in a balancing dance of opposites. Two spenders who come together will fight each other for the superspender role; the other, as a defense, will learn to hoard because someone has to set limits. When it comes to defense styles, there's always a pursuer (or clinger) and a withdrawer. With two withdrawers, one will become the superwithdrawer. The other will become a pursuer, because if they both withdrew there would be no connection at all.
An equally common polarity is the is worrier and avoider. Avoiders don't focus on the details of their money life, such as whether they have enough money or how much interest they're paying on their credit cards; they just spend. A worrier will turn a mate into an avoider just as a way of escaping the avalanche of worry. And an avoider will turn a mate into a worrier. Two partners couldn't both avoid forever; somebody will eventually get concerned and take on the worrier role. Doubling the trouble, hoarders are usually worriers and spenders are usually avoiders.
As with all polar personality styles, hoarders and spenders live in different universes marked by opposing beliefs. What feels good to one feels horrible to the other. When not spending, a hoarder feels virtuous, in control. A spender when not spending feels anxious and deprived. Indeed, spenders can't tolerate the word "budget;" financial planners have to draw up a "spending plan."
Other money personalities include planners, who are detail-oriented, and dreamers, who are global visionaries. In addition, there are money monks, often ex-hippies, political activists or spiritual souls, who feel that money corrupts and it's better to not have too much. Sometimes they marry money amassers, who believe that the guy with the most money wins. Amassers are not hoarders; they don't simply save, they invest to make their money grow. They save, spend and invest.
What makes each of the personality types is the operation of internal belief systems, what I call money myths--all the money messages, vows and emotional memories acquired from the family of origin, the peer group, the culture alt large and filtered through a person's intrinsic temperament. Many spenders, for example, don't give away just money; they are effusive with feelings, words, everything. Hoarders are typically taciturn and withholding. Even in therapy, they have to be encouraged to open up.
Here is the ironic part. The longer couples are married, the more they lock into polarized roles. Then they attack each other for their differences, projecting onto the other attitudes about every other spender or hoarder they have encountered in their life. They fail to acknowledge the positive aspects of their partner's personality type and of the balancing dance itself.
The failure of people to explore their money personalities leads to deep misunderstanding and hurt. Take the case of a man who views money as security. He does not believe in spending a great deal on gifts; he believes in saving. He's married to a woman who believes that money is both love and happiness; she's a spender. They are about to celebrate a major anniversary. He spends days in record stores searching for the song they danced to when they were dating in the '60s, "their song." When she gets his gift, she thinks he's chintzy and is insulted. He's inconsolably hurt. She, meanwhile, has bought him an expensive gift.
Money issues rarely manifest themselves openly in relationships. Instead, couples fight over what money represents. And while money issues can rear their head anytime; there are specific transition periods in relationships that force them to the surface: tax time, starting a family and buying a house. Couples may complain, "We can't agree on where we want to live." Or, "He wants to go on vacation and I want to save our money for retirement." Or, "She keeps indulging the children, getting them everything they want, and I don't think that's good for the kids."
In addition to money personalities, there are male-female differences in approaches to money that haunt many relationships. It could be said that some differences reflect men as hunters and women as gatherers. In his theater piece Defending the Caveman, Rob Becker describes men: they go out and buy a shirt, wear it until it dies, then go out and kill another shirt. Women, in contrast, gather. They shop for this for next Christmas for their niece and for that for their son-in-law.
Other pervasive money differences exist between the genders. First, men and women have differences of personal boundaries because they are both raised largely by women. Men have to psychologically separate more rigidly from women because of the sex difference; women do not have to separate so rigidly, and therefore can afford less distinct boundaries.
Second, men are raised to see the world as hierarchical and competitive. There's always a one-up and one-down position, a winner and a loser. Women see the world as cooperative and democratic; they share. In addition, they are allowed--even encouraged--to be needy and vulnerable, while men are discouraged from such display.
The boundary and hierarchical differences between men and women lead to clashes around money decision-making. Men think nothing of going out alone and buying a big-screen TV, or even the family car or computer, then coming home and saying, "Hi honey I have a new car." She says, "Why didn't you consult me? I thought we were a team." And he says, "Are you my mother? Do I have to ask your permission?"
Because of their more rigid boundaries, men think of themselves as islands and withdraw when facing difficulties of intimacy. They don't see themselves as part of a team. And, of course, men and women are raised to believe different things about the way they should actually handle money. Despite many social changes, men are still bred to believe they will be good at dealing with money--although nobody tells them how to do it. In that way, money is like sex; they're just supposed to know. Women are raised to believe they won't be good at it and, if they're lucky, some man will take care of the details of money and investing.
One of the major financial houses recently canvassed high school students and asked how good they were about math and money. The boys said, "We're pretty good." The girls said, "We're not very good." In fact, they both knew the same amount about money; but their confidence levels were vastly different.
Moreover, when men make money in the stock market, they credit their own cleverness. When they lose money, they blame the incompetence of their advisors or bad luck. When women make money in the market, they credit the cleverness of their advisors, good luck or even the stars. When they lose money, they blame themselves.
This explanatory style is literally and figuratively depressing. In addition, women are still paid three-quarters of what men are paid for the same job. These events conspire to reduce women's confidence and inspire "bag-lady" nightmares. Because of the forced dependency on men to make decisions about money, women fear being out on the street with nothing.
When men make more money than their spouse, they believe their superior earnings entitle them to greater power in decision-making. By contrast, women who make more than their mates almost always desire democratic decision-making.
As a woman and a therapist, I have a definite bias towards shared decisionmaking and shared power. It is the only arrangement that works. I prefer to think of men's sense of money not as an entitlement but as a defense against the terrible provider burden they carry.
Men are trained to believe that money equals power and that power is the path to respect. However, power and control are not compatible with intimacy. Relationships succeed only when both partners are willing to display their vulnerabilities to each other. It's important for men to know that failing to share power cheats them of the intimacy and love they want.
Another important difference between men and women concerns their interests in merging their money. Typically, men want to merge all the couple money--while maintaining primary decision-making power. Women want to keep at least some money separate.
The fight goes like this:
HE: "Why do you want separate money? You must not trust me. Are you planning to file for a divorce?"
SHE: "Why do you want to merge all of our money? It must be that you want to control me."
There may be truth in both positions. Still, experience has led me to see a very positive, and probably unconscious, longing in both views, and it has to do with the challenge of intimacy. Merging, getting connected and staying connected, is more difficult for men. At the first sign of conflict, it's easy for them to withdraw.
I believe that men's desire to merge the family money is a loving expression of the desire for intimacy and connection. Perhaps it is even a safeguard against their withdrawing. I have come to see that women want separate money as a loving expression of their need for healthy autonomy. Their biggest challenge in relationships is not losing themselves; it's holding on to their own sense of self.
Neither his demand for merged money nor her desire for separate funds is a position taken up against the spouse--although that is how partners tend to see it. When couples understand this, their new perspective has the power to transform their entire relationship.
American culture, I believe, makes a big mistake in pressuring married couples to merge all their money. It is in fact unwise for couples to merge money right away. Since couples don't talk about money before they marry, you don't know if you're tying yourself to an overspender in debt or a worrier who could drive you crazy.
Couples can merge some of their common assets for joint expenses, savings and investing and keep the rest separate. That definitely averts some kinds of conflicts. Your partner doesn't get to comment on how you spend your money. I've always kept a portion of money apart because I knew I was an overspender and I didn't want to mess up the family finances or credit rating.
Alternatively, couples could merge some money and only the woman could have separate funds. Solutions do not have to be symmetrical to work well. They just have to appeal to the deeper needs of both partners. The difficulty is in making clear to the other what your own needs are.
Money issues are different from other problems in relationships. They're harder to talk about and harder to resolve because of our extensive cultural conditioning. The most important thing in couples communication is empathy, or putting yourself in your partner's place. It is almost always more important to be heard and understood than to have a partner agree with what you say.
Spouses who start talking genuinely about what they like about each other's money style create an atmosphere of safety and nondefensiveness. Once such a way of talking about money is established and once couples understand the positive intent of the partner, they can then work out a solution to almost any problem, a solution that best fits their own unique needs.
DOING WHAT DOESN'T COME NATURALLY
Growth, creativity, intimacy and flexibility come from doing what is not automatic. For a hoarder, spending money on one's self or a loved one for immediate pleasure changes the pattern. For a spender, it's saving or investing money, or going on a slow, choreographed binge. Breaking habits doesn't happen all at once; it's a slow process. For example, I can't say, "Don't worry!" to a worrier. But I can say, "Pick one hour to worry, write down your worries for that time and give up worrying for the rest of the day."
Partners can begin to change their ingrained habits by taking the following steps:
o Do what doesn't come naturally once a week. Eventually you and your partner will have moved enough toward some middle ground that you are not locked into your roles.
o While practicing a new behavior, write down how it feels in order to monitor your progress.
o Reward yourself for that new behavior.
CONVERSING WITH CASH
How do you turn your consciousness to an area that's usually in the dark? When a couple comes in fighting about money, I first have them clarify their own personal history and private relationship with money before turning to the dynamic between them.
I want people to see what money symbolizes to them. Then they can "unload" the symbol.
As an exercise at home, I ask each to engage in a dialogue with their money, and not share the conversation until they come back. The goal is to see what money symbolizes for each person, and to recognize that money is just a tool to accomplish certain of life's goals.
In the dialogue, imagine your money is being interviewed on Oprah. Ask how it thinks the relationship between you two is going, how it feels about the way you treat it.
Perhaps Money will reply, "You know, you're squeezing me so tight, I can't breathe. You need to let go a little." Or, "You throw me around, but you don't treat me with respect. You need to pay more attention to me." Either speak into a tape recorder or write the conversation down on paper.
After this dialogue, draw on at least three voices in your head--mother, father and any other figure and have them comment on what has transpired. Finally, consider what God, a Higher Power or inner wisdom might say.
Either Money or God, or both, will help you see the direction you need to move in to achieve money harmony.
Occasionally, a couple is unable to have a dialogue with Money. I then ask them to write down all their childhood memories and associations relating to money and start there.
8 TIPS TO TALKING ABOUT MONEY
Never try to negotiate about money before airing your feelings; otherwise, negotiations will always break down.
1. Find a non-stressful time when money is not a loaded issue (not tax season, please) and when the kids are not around. Agree on some ground rules: no interrupting each other; no long tirades; after one person shares a difficult piece of information, the partner will try to mirror it back before responding.
2. Take turns sharing your childhood messages about money. How did your parents save it, spend it, talk about it? How did they deal with allowances? What specific money messages did you get and how might they be affecting you today?
3. Share your old hurts, resentments and fears about money.
4. Mention your concerns and fears about your partner's money style. Then acknowledge what you admire about their methods and what you secretly envy. Hoarders secretly admire spenders' capacity to enjoy life in the present, while spenders secretly envy hoarders' ability to set limits, to budget and delay gratification. But typically they won't tell each other because they're afraid it confers license to continue in that style. In reality, positive statements help to make partners feel safe enough to give up the negative aspects of their behavior.
5. Talk about your goals for the future, short and long-term.
6. Share your hopes and dreams.
7. Consider making a shared budget or a spending plan together by merging the hopes and the goals that have come up on your list more than once.
8. Set a time to have the next money talk. Aim for weekly conversations in the beginning, then monthly ones.